When people have unpleasant experiences, they tend to tell others about them. “Others” used to include a handful of coworkers, family members and friends. But, now that social media has become the preferred communication platform, it’s only logical that people use it when they want to voice their disapproval and dissatisfaction.
A vast number of topics are broached on social media, but some of the most interesting rants include:
In addition to these notable scenarios, there are daily complaints about customer service, sporadic complaints by waitresses about famous customers leaving meager tips and students complaining about being called out for supposedly violating their schools’ dress codes. The list goes on and on.
People rant on social media for various reasons, and they clearly realize the advantages of using this medium.
The UK-based Institute of Customer Service determined that the number of consumer complaints made on social media has increased eight-fold since January 2014. A VentureBeat report reveals that consumers post 2.1 million negative comments about U.S. companies on social media every day.
According to The Social Habit, 79 percent of the people who turn to Twitter to complain about a company want their friends to see what they’ve written. Only 52 percent hope the company will see the post, and roughly 36 percent expect the company to actually see and take action based on their comments.
Some people might view ranting as an emotional outlet, especially because there’s a school of thought that warns about the dangers of letting anger build up without any release. However, one study, called “Anger on the Internet: The Perceived Value of Rant-Sites,” revealed that online ranting seems to increase anger. Whether participants in the study read someone else’s rant for a period of five minutes or spent five minutes writing their own rants, it negatively affected their emotions and made them even angrier.
Ironically, an organization’s own social media tools could also negatively impact a consumer’s view of the company. This concept was brought to light in another survey conducted by The Social Habit, in which participants divulged the response times they expected when using social media to contact a company for customer support. Of the participants, 32 percent said they expected to receive a response in 30 minutes, and 42 percent expected a response within one hour. Even at night or on weekends, 57 percent expected the same response times to apply. Most companies are not equipped to reply that quickly, especially on a 24-hour basis, and this unpreparedness can actually lead to a higher level of customer dissatisfaction.
While companies might not believe that the customer is always right, they don’t find value in being embroiled in a public relations nightmare caused by a single customer who might have hundreds, thousands or even millions of followers.
To what extent are complainers using social media as a bully pulpit? In most instances, companies wisely choose to avoid online arguments. With high-profile complaints, they might issue statements, but, even then, companies have to be careful not to release information that could have legal ramifications.
For example, if parents rant on social media that their child was suspended for what appears to be a minor offense, in the process of defending itself, the school can’t say, “This is just the latest in a long list of infractions,” and then list the child’s offenses; doing so would entail releasing the private information of a minor.
Companies should be aware that such a defense would be an obvious breach of social etiquette and likely illegal, but individuals should also exercise caution when posting on social media.
California-based counselor Aida Vazin pointed out that social platforms can pose problems for both parties.
“One of the reasons one-sided platforms are a bit troublesome in social media is the fact that they are one-sided, and everything is written down, not just said,” she noted. So, whether the information is accurate or not, once it’s on the internet, that side of the story can live on long after the conflict has been resolved.
Vazin went on to explain that social media lends itself to unchallenged ranting. “There’s a saying that there are three sides to every story – my side, your side, and what really happened – and this scenario is incomplete when there’s a one-sided platform and it only captures a snapshot of a whole event or situation,” she said.
Sometimes, ranting might be a way to garner sympathy and online attention. April Masini, a relationship and etiquette expert and the author of the “Ask April” an online advice column, said she believes that social media has changed the dynamics of relationships. “We have fast friends and fast enemies because of what we say and like or give a thumbs down to on social media,” Masini said.
The allure of social approval – even from strangers – can spur some people to post sensational content. Everyone loves to hear an exciting story, and, unfortunately, bad news travels faster than good news. As any media outlet can confirm, bad news also generates more clicks and page views.
But, what separates online rants from the material produced by legitimate media outlets is that personal posts aren’t fact-checked, balanced stories that attempt to present both sides – or even admit that all of the facts have not been collected.
Masini agreed with the findings of The Social Habit that ranting is done primarily for social media friends to see, not as a way to solve a problem. “Ranting is a symptom of not working to fix conflicts,” she said. “When someone is working on a problem — be it a relationship problem, a financial problem or a real estate problem – they’re not ranting; they’re working on the problem.”
Rather than an active attempt at solving issues, Masini said, online ranting is a way for people to express their displeasure. “Whether it’s displaced road rage, graffiti on the side of a building, or ranting on social media, they just want an outlet,” she said.
On the other hand, some social media rants can be productive. Last holiday season, I saw a post about how long one individual spent waiting to see a customer service representative at a local Apple Store before finally leaving in frustration. Several other people commented on the post with negative remarks, but one user explained that making an appointment usually leads to much faster service. A few days later, the original poster claimed she made an appointment and was serviced within minutes of entering the store. Assuming the other negative posters didn’t know the importance of making an appointment before arriving at an Apple Store, this negative experience was turned into a teachable moment.
Also, the post by the mother of the special needs student who was not invited to his classmate’s birthday party was picked up by a major news outlet, and the story led to a lively debate over the right of parents and students to choose the classmates they want to invite to private functions versus the insensitivity of excluding certain classmates.
Admittedly, social media rants can be quite effective in changing company behavior. If it improves customer service or changes a ridiculous policy, perhaps complaining online can be a force for good.
But, when companies have logical, well thought-out policies and procedures, and they are forced to make exceptions to those rules because an irate customer threatens to damage the brand’s reputation, ranting becomes a type of coercion.
It can also reinforce bad behavior. Just as some parents relent when their toddler screams and hollers, ranting adults learn that throwing a temper tantrum on social media will lead some companies to surrender.
“I believe two-sided platforms such as the mutual rating system of Uber is a great balance and good rule to implement when rating or complaining about others in social media,” Vazin said.
Christopher Bauer, Ph.D., a fraud specialist and the author of “Better Ethics NOW: How to Avoid the Ethics Disaster You Never Saw Coming,” offered tips for ranters and the objects of those rants.
For ranters, Bauer said, “Remember that your rant will be seen both by the object of your rant and potentially countless others, so unless it’s an emergency, cool down before you post.”
Bauer explained that there are several reasons to take a step back and calm down. “Not only do you not want to risk libel liability, but you don’t want to risk your personal reputation,” he said. Once a ranter develops a reputation as a rash person or someone who can’t separate objective information from perceptions and feelings, Bauer said, this individual will lose credibility.
“One of the pleasures of social media is that it can feel like any other conversation with rapid-fire back-and-forth – but it’s exactly that immediacy, especially when we’re excited or riled up, that can lead to posting thoughts and perceptions we’ll later regret having said in public.”
For the objects of the rant, Bauer suggests taking a different approach. “If you’re a business, respond immediately, but take it off social media as quickly as possible said a call (because it’s both more direct and personal), or, if absolutely needed, via a text or email,” he said.
However, Bauer didn’t recommend that companies try to ignore the negative posts. “Besides the fact that responding is simply better customer service, anyone ranting today is a whole lot more likely to keep ranting tomorrow if you don’t respond,” he said.
Terri Williams writes for a variety of clients including USA Today, Yahoo, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, Investopedia, and Robert Half. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Follow her on Twitter @Territoryone.
I am a huge “Star Wars” fan. My parents took me to see the first film when I was 10 years old. The queue stretched around the block, and I’ve never forgotten the frisson of excitement I felt when the star destroyer slowly filled the screen. I spent my teenage years wanting to be Han Solo. (Actually, I still do. My husband is more of a Chewbacca, and my kids cosplay Rey and Kylo Ren; the fights are impressive.)
One of the performances that stayed with me from that first viewing was Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin, Governor of the Empire’s fearsome battle station, the Death Star. Cushing was already a wonderfully sinister legend, even to a 10-year-old British girl. Watching “Rogue One,” I was delighted to see the character of Governor Tarkin appear on screen almost forty years on, apparently unchanged. However, rather than blanket praise for the work of the Industrial Light and Magic team (the special effects wizards behind the whole Star Wars franchise), the character’s physical appearance, so famously linked to that of the deceased actor, caused a babble of concern across the press and social media. Catherine Shoard, film editor of The Guardian, declared this resurrection “a digital indignity”: I beg to differ.
The technology of CGI – computer generate imagery – is already familiar to most cinema goers, and has made possible the effective realisation of sci fi and fantasy films including the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Harry Potter series. We’ve applauded the rapid improvement from jerky approximations of fantastic creatures to smooth and seamless character integrations. So, why did so many people find Rogue One’s digital resurrection morbid, disrespectful, or downright unethical?
Resurrecting actors is nothing new
First, let’s debunk the myth that this is the first time a movie has involved the CGI portrayal of an actor. Of course it isn’t! I first recall CGI being used in “Gladiator” (1999), when Oliver Reed died three weeks before the end of filming. Director Ridley Scott’s careful use of offcuts and a bit of (at the time) new-fangled CGI, patching Reed’s features onto body doubles, ensured that he gave a complete performance from beyond the grave. It was quite fun watching the film and trying to spot the CGI elements. Even before that, in 1988, the accidental death of Roy Kinnear during the filming of “The Return of the Musketeers” required the producers to get creative. The technical wizardry we have now was in its infancy, so Kinnear’s role was completed by a double and a sound-alike, who both went uncredited. Although the mechanics were different, the principle was the same: The show must go on!
A number of TV commercials have also been produced and aired after their stars died. These advertisements have attracted more attention than films that have undergone role completion editing, possibly because it’s more obvious to audiences that the star has had no physical part in the production. Steve Bennett-Day, Executive Creative Director for Havas Helia, voiced popular concerns about CGI in his 2016 article for Campaign, a branding and marketing publication. He articulates the perceived difference between ‘respectful’ ads and what he calls the ‘creepy’ use of CGI. In his article, he compares accidents of broadcast timing where the shooting has been completed, and genuine tributes like the re-broadcast of a much-loved British ad in response to demand after the passing of the star, against poorly-judged CGI depiction. He specifically criticises the use of images of the late Audrey Hepburn in a Galaxy chocolate ad, and also notes a ‘downright awful’ (sic) Saatchi & Saatchi print ad that featured an image of the late Kurt Cobain showing off Dr Marten boots under his angel robes. Bennett-Day’s criticism once again draws attention to the key ethical question that was raised by “Rogue One”: When the CGI performance we’re watching is a completely new creation, has a line been crossed?
Protecting our identities
Photographers are all aware of the rules around image copyright. A photographer who takes a picture legally owns that image, with certain exceptions: in particular, if one takes a picture of artwork, the copyright for the photograph rests with the creator of the original artwork. With an individual, Publicity Rights are applied in a similar vein. So, if the likeness of an individual is used to create a CGI character, where do the rights reside? This is an issue both of privacy and of earnings.
Legal protection of Publicity (Personality) Rights differs from country to country and from state to state, a complex patchwork of legislation even in the United States alone. We know that the “Star Wars” team sought and was granted permission from Peter Cushing’s estate to create the CGI representation of Governor Tarkin as portrayed. The late, great Robin Williams used his will to restrict the use of his name, signature, photograph and likeness for 25 years from his death, according to clause 188.8.131.52 (a) in the legal documentation published by the Hollywood Reporter. Did the shrewd star anticipate that CGI technology could eventually be used to resurrect dead celebrities? The provision in Williams’ will avoids reliance upon inconsistent publicity protection against an increasingly complex and global technological backdrop.
Why CGI for Rogue One?
We might wonder why the character of Grand Moff Tarkin was given the CGI treatment where others were not. Rebel leader Mon Mothma was played by Caroline Blakiston in the original trilogy, and by Genevieve O’Reilly in “Episode III: Revenge of the Sith” and in “Rogue One” – a seamless transition, as the actresses were of the same build, and the character’s neat dark bobbed hair, robes and chains of office were straightforward to recreate. However, Peter Cushing’s fabulous cheekbones and sunken face were his trademark, and as such gave a unique feel to the Tarkin character. Lookalike Australian actor Wayne Pygram successfully portrayed Tarkin in a short cameo in “Episode III: Revenge of the Sith,” and there have been questions around why Pygram did not reprise the role. We don’t know the answer, but Pygram has done very little acting work since “Star Wars” and the TV series “Farscape,” and it’s possible that he was simply not in a position to take the part. For continuity of character, and without an easy lookalike solution, it would appear that Rogue One’s producers had no choice but to turn to Industrial Light and Magic.
Actor Guy Henry, the performer you see behind the CGI overlay of Cushing’s features and who is rightfully credited for the role of Governor Tarkin, thinks that creating more completely new performances by deceased actors through CGI is an unlikely scenario. When interviewed by Hollywood Reporter’s Aaron Crouch, he said, “I can’t really see why they would [do the same again] …… This was very specifically to recreate this character in a way that served the story of Rogue One.” In this context, it seems that the CGI work in “Rogue One” was really a continuation of the same performance in “A New Hope,” a way of ensuring that the show did go on. It’s interesting to note that while a Carrie Fisher CGI cameo closed Rogue One, and was in any case produced during her lifetime, a statement has recently been issued by the Star Wars team to reassure fans that for future films “Lucasfilm has no plans to digitally recreate Carrie Fisher’s performance as Princess or General Leia Organa.” This seems to bear out Guy Henry’s assertion, and will come as a relief to those who found the Rogue One Tarkin character disturbing.
Animation vs. reality
If anything underlines the realistic nature of the character in “Rogue One” as a technical accomplishment rather than a new Cushing performance, it’s the nomination for Outstanding Animated Performance in a Photoreal Feature in the upcoming Visual Effects Society Awards. Grand Moff Tarkin is up against Newt Scamander’s Niffler, the cutest of Fantastic Beasts in the latest excursion into the Harry Potter universe.
We praise CGI when it delivers fantastic creatures to our screens with such veracity. We are delighted that they integrate seamlessly with the real and interact with human actors in a way that, previously, we could only imagine. We recognize that there are actors creating those personalities behind CGI masks. Andy Serkis, for example, is an accomplished character actor: his live performance as Gollum set against the final CGI version in this video of Weta Digital’s work is worth watching, for the performance as much as the insight into the creative animation process.
For years, we have seen realistic animations of the human form in films and video games. We’ve also witnessed crossovers in the other direction: for instance, Angelina Jolie played a real representation of animated character Lara Croft in the “Tomb Raider” films. It seems that discomfort with the CGI representation of Grand Moff Tarkin stems purely from the fact that he is not a fantastic beast, and we recognize the features of the fictional character as those of a real deceased fellow human. With Tarkin, we are committing the ultimate sin of confusing the actor with the character.
There is nothing unethical about the CGI character of Grand Moff Tarkin: it is appropriate to the story, fundamentally the continuation of an existing performance, and it’s a grandly successful creation by Guy Henry and the Industrial Light and Magic team. However, the controversy serves as a warning that the digital world is moving fast, and that considerations of privacy may need to take this technology into account, too.
Kate Baucherel is a published author, speaker, trainer and coach, and co-founded community software company Ambix. She has two young children, and lives in the north of England. Find out more at www.katebaucherel.com, or follow @katebaucherel on Twitter.
To those who think Snapchat is just for silly selfies: Think again.
Originally an app for sending photos and short videos (“snaps”) that permanently disappear after being viewed, the tool has evolved considerably since its 2011 launch.
Here’s a quick synopsis: In 2013, the company created “Snapchat Stories,” a feature that lets users stitch together multiple snaps that can be viewed an unlimited number of times in a span of 24 hours. In 2014, it added “Our Stories” (now called “Live Stories”), enabling people at events to submit their snaps to a common story curated by Snapchat itself. And in January 2015, Snapchat introduced “Discover,” a channel for media companies to push content to the app’s users, which now add up to over 150 million daily — more than Twitter, though a far cry from Facebook. Those audiences are not just teenagers and college students. At a conference in February 2016, Snapchat said more than half of its new users are over the age of 25.
While many other changes have marked the app’s short history (2014 also brought “geofilters,” which stamp a time or place on a snap, and “lenses,” which overlay masks on selfies), but it is the “Stories” and “Discover” features that have piqued the interest of journalists and media companies most.
Indeed, the New York Times published more than a dozen articles about Snapchat and its parent company, Snap, Inc., this past November and December. “If you secretly harbor the idea that Snapchat is frivolous or somehow a fad, it’s time to re-examine your certainties,” wrote the New York Times tech columnist Farhad Manjoo. “In fact, in various large and small ways, Snap has quietly become one of the world’s most innovative and influential consumer technology companies.”
It’s true: Snapchat is a tool allowing journalists to report and distribute news in completely original ways. It’s also a platform empowering consumers to engage with news like never before. But the company, notorious for its secretive culture, is tight-lipped about its editorial policies, making it difficult to answer the ethical questions raised by the app’s journalistic features: Who is responsible for validating crowdsourced content? Who should decide what news is important for audiences to see? And is a company like Snapchat bound by the principles of journalism?
Yusuf Omar, mobile editor at Hindustan Times and a Snapchat enthusiast, is one journalist pushing the boundaries of Snapchat in his work. In July, for example, he used the app to interview victims of sexual abuse. He had his sources shield their faces using a Snapchat filter. The move wasn’t a gimmick. Rather, it gave a voice to women who felt they must remain anonymous in a country that stigmatizes rape survivors.
At a conference in Chicago this October, Omar discussed how he and his staff use Snapchat more broadly as a content creation tool. A journalist could simply use a smartphone’s built-in camera app to take photos and record video, but Omar said there are unique benefits to using Snapchat instead. The obvious plus is that the app lets journalists send content directly to their followers, in real time. Snaps can also be manipulated with text, drawings and icons. So, a journalist could take a photo of a scene, manually circle a point of interest and describe it with a caption. Omar emphasized Snapchat’s time and place geofilters as a valuable feature for journalists because they can’t be manipulated by the person taking the snap. “These are layers of verification that help us add authenticity,” he said.
He admitted that Snapchat is not a perfect tool. It can be hard to build a following on the app because individual journalists can only share content with Snapchat users who have chosen to add them as a friend. What’s more, there are no “likes,” “shares” or “retweets” on Snapchat, so content does not flow from user to user as it does on Facebook or Twitter. Journalists can measure the reach of their snaps to a degree. Users can see how many times their stories have been viewed by their friends and by who, but they can’t see how many friends they have in total or a full list of friends following them. Not even celebrities have this power.
Omar also talked about how a team of journalists out in the field can take snaps and send them to an editor back at the office, who can then combine the pictures into a package. Savvy journalists can even ask their followers at events to send them snaps for this purpose. It’s worth noting that these “citizen journalists” are members of the public and therefore not bound to any journalistic principles. In cases where citizen journalists are utilized, Omar believes that the editor is responsible for the integrity of the final product. “It’s the same when you hire a freelancer to do a story,” he said. “It’s still going to be the news editor that’s going to be on the chopping board if that story doesn’t make sense.”
Snapchat uses citizen reporters to crowdsource content, too. In the past, the app called on its users to cover political debates, Ramadan in Mecca, Hurricane Matthew and battles in Iraq, although less serious events such as concerts and sporting events are more often showcased in Snapchat’s Live Stories.
This is how Live Stories work: At events deemed newsworthy, Snapchat activates a feature that allows users on location to submit photos and videos. (Those users grant Snapchat the right to use their content in the app’s terms of service.) Then, a team of curators at the company chooses footage from the submissions, stitches scenes together and adds context such as graphics and captions. The results are unprecedented, often intimate snapshots of events from a diverse array of perspectives many journalists could only dream of attaining.
As alluring and innovative as Snapchat’s Live Stories are, it’s important to note they come from an entity that identifies itself as a camera company, not a media company. A camera company makes no promise that its content will be factual and balanced. Maybe Snapchat’s curators are held to those principles internally, but maybe they’re not. When asked what is known about the people making decisions at Snapchat, Omar is blunt: “We know so little. I don’t think there is a startup that is more mysterious than Snapchat. We know so little about their direction and where they’re going.”
So, how does Snapchat decide what topics to cover in Live Stories? Do curators follow rules about how many sources and perspectives to include in a story? What voices does Snapchat miss by relying solely on its own users to submit content? Does Snapchat fact-check? Should it?
After Facebook’s fake news scandal broke in November, journalist Jessica Lessin wrote an editorial for the New York Times arguing that Facebook should not be responsible for policing news. “…hiring editors to enforce accuracy — or even promising to enforce accuracy by partnering with third parties — would create the perception that Facebook is policing the ‘truth,’ and that is worrisome,” she wrote. “I’m not comfortable trusting the truth to one gatekeeper that has a mission and a fiduciary duty to increase advertising revenue, especially when revenue is tied more to engagement than information.”
Does the same sentiment hold for Snapchat, a company that builds its own news packages while relying on advertising revenue? Of course, traditional news organizations count on advertising, too, but “are checked by the power of our competitors and … by readers who stop paying us if we fail them,” wrote Lessin.
Snapchat makes money in a couple ways: from ads (it costs $350,000 to $600,000 for a branded geofilter and up to $700,000 for a lens) and from its Discover tool — a distinct space in the app where media companies ranging from Cosmopolitan to the Wall Street Journal share their content with Snapchat users.
Snapchat introduced Discover in a post on its website in January 2015, calling it “a new way to explore Stories from different editorial teams” and “the result of collaboration with world-class leaders in media to build a storytelling format that puts the narrative first.” This line is perhaps the most striking: “Social media companies tell us what to read based on what’s most recent or most popular. We see it differently. We count on editors and artists, not clicks and shares, to determine what’s important.”
Again, the question arises: How does Snapchat ultimately decide what’s important? And how much does that answer depend on who is paying the bills? Only Snapchat’s paying media partners can use the Discover space, and a partner can reportedly be booted at any time. As with Live Stories, content in Discover appears to be fully at the mercy of Snapchat, which does not openly detail its policies for branded content. “The messaging and media app has no formal branded content program, and enforces rules arbitrarily about what is and isn’t permitted,” said advertisers and publishers contacted by Digiday.
Lately, it seems that Snapchat has made a new move every day: In September, the company debuted Spectacles, which are sunglasses with a built-in camera hooked up to Snapchat. In November, it filed paperwork for an initial public offering in early 2017 (the value of the company is said to be up to $25 billion, one of the highest stock debuts in years). Finally, in December, the company announced new partnerships with Disney and Turner to create original TV shows hosted on the app.
Outsiders don’t know what Snapchat’s plans for its news division entail, but it’s clear that as this so-called camera company grows, so will its power to influence what kind of content it exposes to its millions of users.
Nora Dunne is a Chicago-based writer and editor. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University in 2010.
If you’d like to experience raw hate and ignorance, do a Twitter search for the words “Doris Truong” and “Tillerson.” Angry tweets and retweets claim the home page editor of the Washington Post was caught sneaking pictures of Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson’s notes during his confirmation hearing. There’s video. Memes. Calls for her firing because this is proof she’s a “scumbag.”
Dead wrong. It wasn’t Doris.
No matter. She was publicly vilified and personally attacked.
Her Post account of the Kafka-esque experience as a victim of fake news.
“Trolls Decided I Was Taking Pictures of Rex Tillerson’s Notes. I Wasn’t Even There” is chilling. The fake news had started spreading overnight, and:
By the time I woke up, trolls had commented on social media channels besides Twitter. My Facebook feed had dozens of angry messages from people I didn’t know, as did comments on my Instagram account. Even my rarely used YouTube channel attracted attention. My emails and my voicemail included messages calling me “pathetic” and a “sneaky thief.”
A lot of the comments also focused on my Chinese heritage, implying — or outright stating — that I must be spying for China. Some called for an FBI investigation of what they deemed illegal behavior.”
I know Doris. She’s a friend. I’ve taught and coached in her newsroom and have worked with her on diversity programs for journalism associations. She’s a smart, strong and ethical journalist.
What drove the assault on her? Fake news. Political tribalism. Racism. Sexism. All were on display in the litany of errors and insults that enveloped her.
But those were actually the results of something even more basic: a lack of critical thinking about the video at the heart of the story.
Watch it. But when you do so, watch it with questions, not assumptions. Remember the key questions my ethics mentor, Dr. Bob Steele, taught generations of journalists to ask:
What do I know?
What do I need to know?
Had anyone viewing the video operated using those questions, rather than their assumptions and biases, things could have been different.
Let’s try it.
We know: There is a video of a woman.
We need to know:
We know: She has something in her hands that appears to be a phone.
We need to know:
We know: She is doing something with the thing that looks like a phone.
We know: This is happening at a government hearing.
We need to know:
We know: Something is on the table.
We need to know:
And then, the most important questions:
The term “fake news,” in its short life, has already been twisted into pretzel shapes by people for whom it is “information I don’t agree with.”
Doris Truong’s case shows us the real damage of fake news. It can be propagated not only by those who traffic in deception and racism, but by any of us who fail to do the hard work of critical thinking.
When you’re tempted to pass judgment and share it with others, remember: What do I know? What do I need to know?
Jill Geisler is the inaugural Bill Plante Chair in Leadership and Media Integrity, a position designed to connect Loyola’s School of Communication with the needs and interests of contemporary and aspiring media professionals worldwide. Geisler is known internationally as a teacher and coach of leaders in media and beyond. @JillGeisler
The first bank opened in the United States in 1791, offering citizens a safe place to store funds. Within years, criminals figured out how to capitalize on these strategically placed caches of money. In 1798, the Bank of Pennsylvania was the site of the first bank theft, when two men with forged keys entered the bank and emptied the vault and safety deposit boxes. Since then, law officials and bank personnel have been coming up with increasingly sophisticated methods of thwarting criminals intent on grabbing easy money.
As time progresses, technology becomes increasingly valuable in both preventing crime and catching criminals once a crime has taken place. However, this technology is also imbued with the capacity to become a significant threat to personal privacy.
In recent years, banks used exploding dye packs to discourage theft and help track thieves. Now, many financial institutions are switching to implanting global positioning system (GPS) devices in bags of money to find criminals on the run through geolocation.
The strategy appears to work. Using this technology, law enforcement officials catch bank robbers in record time. Wichita police were able to apprehend a suspect just 15 minutes after he committed the robbery by tracking a device hidden in the bags of money he had stolen. Similar situations in states such as Washington, Colorado, New York and others throughout the United States point to the effectiveness of GPS tracking systems in both deterring crime and leading to faster, safer criminal apprehension.
Recent years have seen GPS technology being perfected through smaller, more accurate trackers. In 2013, scientists at North Dakota State University made a breakthrough by developing Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chips that are ultra-thin and virtually undetectable. The BBC reported that the chips could be used to track bank notes, legal documents, tickets, and more. Not only could this technology help foil bank robbers, but it can help follow “dark money,” the illicit funds exchanged by governments and organizations, criminal and otherwise, to support organized crime or political intrigue.
Dark money is any money of unknown origin. Commonly, politically active nonprofits and corporate entities such as limited liability companies (LLCs) are the primary generators of these types of funds. Nonprofits formed under sections 501(c)(4) and 501(c)(6) of the U.S. tax code are not required to disclose their donors. Moreover, LLCs formed in some states, including Delaware and Wyoming, can hide behind the only disclosure they are obliged to make: the company’s name. Forces can fund LLCs such as these to further a political agenda or donate to an independent political action committee (PAC) that’s able to raise unlimited sums of money for a candidate or chosen issue. These large PACs are called super PACs, and they can influence government policies for their small, but often financially dominant, donors.
According to the nonpartisan group Center for Responsive Politics, about $300 million in dark money was used to finance various political messages leading up to the 2012 election. In 2016, this figure increased tenfold, according to U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin, and, as reported by the Huffington Post, one group, the National Rifle Association (NRA), spent more than $52 million dollars supporting Republican control of the government.
The Federal Election Commission sets up campaign finance laws, which put forward limits and prohibitions on contributions to maintain fair, balanced election and legislative processes. Dark money is a way around these procedures a trend that helps subvert our democratic process.
Another area of shady money is “black money.” Black money, as defined by Investopedia, is “Money earned through any illegal activity uncontrolled by country regulations. Black money proceeds are usually received in cash from underground economic activity and, as such, are not taxed. Recipients of black money must hide it, spend it only in the underground economy, or give it the appearance of legitimacy through money laundering.”
The phenomenon of black money is alive and well in India, where the World Bank estimates that the black money economy is one-fifth of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). In action aimed at preventing individuals from continuing to hoard untaxed funds, the Indian government announced this November that it would ban two of the largest bills in its currency system. There is a three-fold reason for doing so: to target terrorists and other organizations that thrive on unaccounted-for money; to stem the tide of counterfeit money; and to more tightly regulate the Indian system of black money that relies on cash payments to avoid the payment of taxes.
Friends of mine from the Indian state of Kerala explained to me that many Indians sell houses or other valuables at less than half the market price, collecting the other part of the value in black money. This activity is confirmed by Geeta Anand in a column for The New York Times. She claims, “Real estate has been particularly hard hit by the ban on black money, since sale documents filed with the government typically reflect only the portion of the sale price paid by check. As a result, the sellers have no way of explaining to the tax authorities how they received the cash, which can account for as much as 60 percent of the deal.” The money, collected over the years, is hidden away in caches within the sellers’ homes or even buried.
When India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi made the announcement regarding the abolition of the 500 and 1,000 rupee notes, he added that citizens could trade in the banned notes for newer currency until the end of the year, after which time the large bills would be obsolete. Also, citizens could only exchange up to 4,000 rupees per day, or around $60. People with substantial amounts of money to convert would be forced to explain the source of the funds and be at risk for tax investigations.
Shortly after the announcement, a video debuted on What’s App showing someone washing a recently issued Rs 2,000 bank note. The immersion of the bill in water caused a RFID tracking strip running down the side of the bill to emerge. The video went viral and subsequently caused panic as thousands of Indians believed the government was intent on using a “Nano GPS chip” in cash to track the currency and possibly to locate hidden stockpiles of money.
Even news sources such as rednewswire.com reported that the GPS tracking of cash would allow government entities to track money buried up to 120 meters below the ground using satellite technology. The media outlets further claimed that attempted removal of the chip would render the money useless.
The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) was quick to dismiss the claims, pointing out that it would be impossible to implant money with Nano GPS chips. According to news18.com, RBI spokesperson Alpana Killawala said, “Such a technology does not exist at the moment in the world, then how can we introduce such a feature?”
But the technology does exist.
The world’s smallest fully integrated GPS receiver in the world, the OriginGPS Nano Spider, which, at about 0.16 inches wide,.16 inches long and .08 inches deep, is smaller than a piece of pencil lead. It could most certainly carry out that sort of tracking for the Indian government. However, Trak.in, an online site reporting on business issues in India, dismissed the Indian government’s supposed chipping of cash as a rumor based on the fact that it would cost at least Rs50 per note to manufacture the tracking chips. Although it does seem an extreme and costly move for the government to make, Trak.in didn’t take RFID technology into consideration when declaring the rumor a hoax. As opposed to a GPS chip, a passive RFID tag for currency could cost as little as 12 cents per tag. While even this might seem like a lot to pay per note, it would more than pay for itself by tracking undeclared money in a country in which only 1 percent of the population has paid taxes. Since the ban on bills, the Indian government received about $80 billion in untaxed money between Nov.10 and Nov. 18.
While such tracking might be a boon for governments and anti-terrorism organizations tracking dark money or illicit funds, it may also be an invasion of privacy that goes far beyond the simple monitoring of transactions.
Implementing RFID tracking in currency implies the government knows the location of individuals carrying the currency. Government agencies using such technology would gain the ability to watch where and how their citizens spend their money and possibly pinpoint their locations at any given time. Even more worrisome is the fact that RFID technology is hackable. There are at least seven known ways to hack a RFID chip. It is easy to imagine criminals actively searching a city street for the victim with the most money, deactivating the locator, then moving in for the theft.
Geolocation technology also opens up privacy issues for children who are carrying money marked with GPS tracking technology. It could make them potential targets for crime and violate their rights under the continually changing U.S. Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act (COPPA), which currently requires parental consent for geolocation data collection from children under the age of 13.
Even without RFID or GPS chip technology, our society is a trackable one. Browsers such as Google Chrome, Safari and Mozilla Firefox can note your physical location from computer input. Twitter can track you, even if you don’t use geotags. Facebook is another application that can follow your movements across town or across the world. Moreover, both iPhone and Android mobile phones keep a record of your location over time and download the information in a file stored on your device. At least one police department has run afoul of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) by accessing this data using portable data extraction devices. Also, if you think you’ve escaped detection by your apps or devices, you may be still be tracked when you use Wi-Fi.
All things considered, the ability of law enforcement officials to track stolen, dark or black money might just outweigh privacy concerns. Money that is being used to subvert the election process or support terrorist groups, or is being hidden as a means of avoiding taxation that contributes to public coffers, offers insult to an egalitarian society. As a global society, we are constantly developing new rules and regulations to keep up with our rapidly changing and increasingly technical world. We’ve already put rules in place, including COPPA, the Electronic Digital Privacy Act (EDPA), the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP), to stem the tide of privacy-disrupting digital technologies and practices. Similarly appropriate legislation can overcome, or at least mitigate, privacy issues associated with currency tracking.
Nikki B. Williams is a bestselling author based in Houston, Texas. She writes about fact and fiction and the realms between, and her nonfiction work appears in both online and print publications around the world. Follow her on Twitter @williamsbnikki or at www.gottabeewriting.com.